Co-existence with major industry

The Murujuga rock art is located on the Burrup Peninsula, a key industry hub for mining, shipping and industrial processing in Western Australia, and which houses Woodside’s Pluto LNG processing plant and the Yara Pilbara fertiliser plant (which is one of the largest ammonia production sites in the world), all in close vicinity to the Murujuga rock art.

The Burrup Peninsula has received a lot of media attention recently, largely due to the proposed Perdaman fertiliser plant and Woodside’s plans to expand its “Burrup Hub” to bring gas from the Browse Basin to existing facilities at the North West Shelf, which the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority approved in July this year. Media attention has largely focused on the tension between industry and development on the one hand, and the conservation and preservation of the Murujuga rock art on the other.

In September, the Federal Government appointed an independent reporter to determine whether the Murujuga rock art is at risk from “all industry activities” approved on the Burrup Peninsula and whether a Ministerial declaration under the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (Cth) (ATSIHPA) should be issued to protect the area. This investigation has been progressed as the result of an application under section 10 of the ATSIHPA by an Indigenous-led organisation, Save Our Songlines, which has been working to protect the Murujuga rock art for years, and comes only a month after the Federal Government denied an application under section 9 of the ATSIHPA to block the construction of Perdaman’s $4.5 billion fertiliser plant on the Burrup Peninsula.

Policy vs practice

These two (seemingly) conflicting government decisions bring to light the clear disconnect between Government policy, the environmental legislation and Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation.

Industry development in the Pilbara region and the push into “cleaner” sources of energy and fuels will come at a cost – most likely to the detriment of the Murujuga rock art. While both the State and Federal Governments have re-emphasized their intention to work with Traditional Owners and protect areas of key Aboriginal cultural heritage significance following the Juukan Gorge Inquiry in 2021, there is little room for key Aboriginal stakeholders to participate under the current Aboriginal cultural heritage landscape.

In Western Australia, the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA) (EP Act) defines the environment as “living things, their physical, biological and social surroundings, and interactions between all of those”. Social surroundings are defined as the “aesthetic, cultural, economic and social surroundings” of people. Environmental impact assessments conducted under the EP Act must consider the social surroundings as a factor of in each assessment to “protect social surroundings from significant harm”.

This, in theory, should complement the Western Australian Aboriginal heritage legislation, which serves to preserve and protect areas of Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia. The new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 (WA) intends to empower Traditional Owners to make decisions about disturbances that will impact their country. However, in practice, it remains to be seen how this is enforced, with many key Aboriginal stakeholders highlighting that the re-branded legislation still allows a single elected official to have the final say on whether a heritage site can be destroyed for the sake of development. While this ‘works’ if the decision maker is aligned to the views of Aboriginal stakeholders, it is potentially disempowering that there is bureaucratic power to either block a development that Aboriginal people support or to allow a project that Aboriginal people oppose.

Gilbert + Tobin's trip to the Pilbara 

The members of G+T’s Energy + Resources team were recently privileged with the opportunity to travel to the Pilbara to experience and learn about the history of the Murujuga rock art on the Burrup Peninsula. Murujuga is home to some of the world’s oldest, richest and most diverse rock art. There are more than one million recorded petroglyphs in the Murujuga area, with some of the petroglyphs estimated to be at least 35,000 years old over an area of around 37,000 hectares. The Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, together with the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, has nominated the Murujuga rock art for protection on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2020.

Our G+T team was lucky enough to view the Murujuga rock art at sunrise, while we listened and learned about the history of the area. The rock art illustrates the rich history of the Traditional Owners of the Dampier Archipelago and the Burrup Peninsula, and includes depictions of animals which are now extinct as well as depictions of early Western colonialist settlers. The rock art has survived as a continuing tradition that represents a rich history of cultural storytelling, including warnings and advice to travellers.